Return to Petersburg

October 8, 2021


Bella the boat dog, looking ahead to next season. (Photo: Patsy Urschel)

It’s early October in Southeast Alaska. I’m at the wheel of our little steel ship, the 72-foot, black-hulled Endeavour, cutting through the chop on the north side of Kupreanof Island, heading south in Frederick Sound in a light, foggy rain. Through thin spots in the mist, I can see the first snow on the mountains around Petersburg, and then I can see the town itself. At the outer buoy, I turn the ship to starboard and enter Wrangell Narrows, heading for the north harbor. The tide is flooding and the current adds five knots to our speed. We are racing along at close to 14 knots. This old boat is running for the barn.


As we pass the two canneries built out on pilings, I turn in to the harbor. We enter a swirl and the current turns us almost 90 degrees to port then 180 agrees to starboard. A hundred and fifty feet from the dock, we get clear of the confused water, straighten out, and I set up for the landing. It’s like landing a plane: I slow the speed and eyeball the angle to the dock, adjusting for both the wind and the current. Without a bow thruster, it’s all throttle and rudder.


Patsy, my wife, is on the foredeck in her yellow raingear with the thick black nylon lines in her hands. She already has the fenders out.


We slow, and at the last moment, I flare the bow away from the dock and ever-so-gently touch the edge broadside just as we come to a full stop. Patsy steps off onto the wet wood and ties the lines to the bull rail as easily as you can tie your shoelaces. We’re two slips down from where we spent last winter.


Five minutes later, I’ve shut down the engine, turned off the electronics and navigation lights, and joined Patsy on the dock. Bella, our short-legged part-Jack Russell mutt, runs down the dock ahead of us and pees. She hates peeing on the boat.


Most of our neighbors from last winter are here. On the end tie is the Kestrel, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s 106-foot research vessel with its blue hull and yellow stripe – Alaska state colors. The Westerly is next to it, an 81-foot steel, all-black halibut longliner with tubs of hook-sets stacked under its covered bow. I see two new boats, a white wooden salmon troller, the Aleutian, about 75 feet long, built (judging from the bow and aft cabin) around 1928, and the Marsons, a 1950’s-era black and white wooden seiner about 48-feet long. We walk down the dock passing other old friends: the Cinnamon Girl, a 57-foot wooden gill netter; the Betty, a 54-foot wooden long-liner; the Island Girl, a 54-foot crabber sitting very low in the water, probably because its fuel tanks are full; the Charles T, a 50-foot wooden seiner with a 1920s plumb stem and a new unpainted aluminum house, more handsome than it sounds; the Caribou, a very trig 40-foot salmon troller from the 1930s; and a handful of other fine old wooden fishing boats, most of them exceptionally well cared for.


There are a few fiberglass yachts. Two of them are already covered in canvas tents for the winter. I can’t remember or see their names. Next to them, though, is the Salty Dawg, a 53-foot Kady-Krogen owned by a couple, the husband of which keeps a commercial fishing boat up in Bristol Bay. He’s been fishing Alaska for 75 years. They have become good friends.


Bella notices a mastiff on the Aleutian and runs back down the dock, barking an unnecessary challenge. The mastiff is unmoved. We clip the leash to Bella’s collar and continue back up the dock to the building at the top of the ramp. We need to check in with the harbormaster. I would have liked to have stayed out until the end of the month, but we have things here that need doing, and the weather forecast was discouraging. There was already ice in the inner bays.


Leaving the harbormaster’s office a few minutes later, Patsy, Bella, and I head up the hill on Dolphin Street, through a patch of woods and then across a stretch of muskeg to the post office. There is no mail delivery to houses in Petersburg, or boats. The post office is where everyone runs into everyone else. We’ll see people we know.


When we get back to the boat, we will start dinner – probably some of the last halibut we caught, braised in soy-ginger sauce on rice, and a slice or two of the sourdough bread Patsy bakes on board. I have long nights ahead to work on this season’s logs and plan next year’s expeditions. It’s time to get to work.


— William Urschel